Examining and Thinking Through “The Simplest Possible Universe”

This is the first in a series of blog posts about a work done by Dr. David Lee Cale, professor at West Virginia University.  Cale, a polymath, is chiefly a philosopher, trained in physics, political science, mathematics, economics, and numerous other disciplines, holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, an M.B.A., a B.A. in political science, and is ABD in economics, and is a notable ethicist.  The work of his being examined is “The Simplest Possible Universe,” a monograph that synthesizes ancient Greek and Scholastic styles of thinking with modern physical insight.  The work is striking, in that its brand of creativity is not common in modern intellectual enterprises.  Retaining the good sense and substance of modern physics, Cale employs modes of thinking that are on loan from times nearly forgotten.  The objective of this blog series is to deconstruct the monograph, examine its components, and assess the merits of each, redoubting where possible.  At the end, if efficacious, an attempt at resynthesis of the project, consequent upon the conceptual retooling, will be made. 

Cale’s imaginative project, in “The Simplest Possible Universe,” has two parts: First, he seeks to build the philosophical conjecture that the universe is the simplest possible universe by developing a model of what might be entailed in the simplest possible universe, parsimoniously predicating principles to its metaphysics —and, to some extent, there is a Cartesian method in play, as he tears down, before building up (see the preface).  Second, he seeks to illustrate isomorphisms between his model and the real World, which certainly goes beyond mere philosophical gesticulation.  Cale’s dissertation was on The Kantian Element of the Copenhagen Interpretation, and he has informed me that “The Simplest Possible Universe,” its attempt to strip stochastic process and magic from the perspective in physics, the project might well have been called something like “Removing the Kantian Element from Our Interpretation of Light.”  This approach to philosophy is, I think, the approach of the future, and one that I wholly embrace: Going beyond a mere sympathetic reading and understanding of a set of texts (or set of ideas), and understanding the edifice to the point of being able to contribute to that area of scholarship, comes with an acute awareness of that edifice’s weaknesses.  This allows for some of the best critical work to be done.  The push for removing Kant’s mark from the philosophy of physics, allowing for greater demystification of physics, is growing.[1]  In a nutshell, this is represents well the aim of the short treatise.  There are some questions that the treatise hopes to answer along the way, but these will be touched upon as the analysis proceeds.

Among the first topics touched upon by in the monograph is “ontological nothingness.”  Distinguishing between other kinds of nothingness, such as mental non-being, Cale seeks to make this ontological nothingness the starting point and basis for the model, the simplest possible universe (heretofore “SPU”).  The problem, which seems to be overcome with little difficulty, is that of capacity to contain: there seems to be room to make this distinction, as it allows for clarification between a nothingness that cannot contain and a nothingness that can.  The nothingness of SPU is extended because the fundamental idea is that it does have to capacity to contain; so, in a way, this idea is already in there, but being explicit and making the distinction is valuable toward the end of clarification.

The idea, up through this juncture, —and interpolating some thought not explicitly present in the text— is that there are two types of situation that need considering, the nothingness that does not have a capacity to contain and the nothingness that does.  Only the latter is physically interesting, because, so far as physics is concerned, there is nothing more to say about the former.  This distinction would also be useful in understanding why a point cannot be the initial physically interesting something: it’s not clear that something can exist within a point.  Set theoretically speaking, the set containing exactly one element would only contain that element and the empty set.  A more rigorous mathematical differentiation between ontological nothingness and a nothingness lacking the capacity to contain would be immensely helpful and worthwhile.  It’s clear that ontological nothingness is some kind of hybrid, like a pseudo-something, but its nature is not entirely clear.  The important thing is that Cale is coupling the necessity for extension of space with that space’s capacity to contain.  This is crucial, because, as he says, ‘when the question is…: “If universal empty space cannot express extension, on what basis is it able to hold objects, galaxies for example, which do express extension?” it usually invites a lecture on meaningless philosophical questions.’[2], [3]

The next step is to do as Einstein had done in his essay, “The Possibility of a “Finite” yet “Unbounded” Universe,” which is to explore the nature of the furthest reaches of space.[4]  However, without explanation, Cale jumps over the possibility that space could be finite, rather than infinite.  In line with his tenets of parsimony and simplicity, there could be, perhaps, an argument to be made to the effect that an infinite unbounded space is simpler than a finite bounded one.  This is an issue that needs addressing.

One of the imaginative elements of the first chapter, if I understand correctly, is the dual layer ontology.  This move seems a bit counterintuitive, because it appears that, in this case, SPU is skirting on the parsimony and simplicity, in the sense that a two-layer ontology is more complex than a single layer, in particular, the proposed empty plenum of so many other philosophical and scientific expositions.  However, maybe there is something to this.  The history of philosophy has struggled over the nature of substance and space: what is substance, other than extension?  If extension is neither inherently lacking of or possessing qualities, that is, is neither inherently filled or empty, then the double layer ontology, which allows for empty space, may be the way to go.  While I do not approve of the attempt to introduce mathematical formalism, which Cale does, primarily because it invites confusion about what is meant, I do think the ontological construct works.  I cannot be too critical of the introduction of formalism, though, because, if read with the intent to understand, the idea the extension and the imposition of the empty set does give a sense of how the number zero might be conceptually constructed.  The issue one might have is that the operation of addition occurs, itself, in physical space: adding objects requires bringing the objects together in a space.  However, it is not too tremendous a leap to propose that we are talking about categories in a conceptual space, but this, again, begs the question of the natural of space (i.e., physical versus mathematical).  After all, this setup, which employs the introduction of the operation of addition, requires that we understand in what way these two entities are being added.  In fact, an attempt is made to get around this by suggesting that ‘+’ simply “marries” the entities.  However, this doesn’t afford an answer to the problem at hand.  Whatever the philosophical issues, the idea that zero is not a fundamental, itself, is a fascinating prospect that makes quite a bit of sense.  It also seems to set the stage, in a metaphysical sense, for what is possible in relation to something like sensibility.  In a way, this notion of marrying seems to resemble, in some ways, the Kantian synthesis, though not entirely.  The resemblance is a product of the idea that the world that could be the world of the human mind is synthesized (married) as Cale describes, but is not Kantian in the sense that space is not a simple external intuition, but, itself, a product of a synthesis.  Moreover, it is not Kantian, in the sense that the external world is constructed, not by the mind, but by some internal faculty existent in the synthesis of space itself.  That is, space has metaphysical properties extant in its own composition, such that its objects will be products of variations in state of the local manifold.  The stress on ‘local’ will become clear in later posts, as Cale seeks to use the construction of space to eliminate non-locality.


[1] Hagar, Amit. “Kant and Non-Euclidean Geometry.” Kant-Studien 99, no. 1 (2008): 80-98.

[2] Cale, David. The Simplest Possible Universe: An Essay on the Ontological Structure of Spacetime. N.p.: Matheia Society Press, 2011. p.1

[3] The issue of mathematical and physical space, and their distinction, is not an easy subject to deal with.  There is a concern, here, regarding whether Cale is stealing cookies from the cookie jar, by ignoring the need to develop a commentary (or something) on differences and similarities between physical and mathematical space, yet entering into a discussion of mathematics elsewhere, when it is convenient.

[4] Einstein, Albert. “The Possibility of a “Finite” yet “Unbounded” Universe.” In Relativity: The Special and General Theory, 122-27. Translated by Lawson. New York City: Three Rivers Press, 1961.

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Filed under Kantian Philosophy, Natural Philosophy, Philosophy, Philosophy of Physics, Philosophy of Science, Pure Philosophy

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